Core elements of Game Design (from Ernest Adams, NASSCOM 7th November 2009, Hyderabad)

I attended the NASSCOM Summit in Hyderabad, India this past week (November 6th & 7th) on Gaming and Animation as part of my trip arranged by the British Council for UK’s Young Interactive Entrepreneur 2009 program. The conference was a good gathering of the who’s who in the gaming and animation sector in India and also brought about some interesting dialogues through the various forums and panels.

The key note speaker on Day 2 was Ernest Adams who is a well known authority on game design, author, co-founder of the International Game Developers Association, and a regular lecturer at the Game Developers Conference. Ernest has been a lead designer at Bullfrog Productions, and the audio/video producer on the Madden NFL product line.

He has developed games for the IBM 360 mainframe, the Playstation 2, and many other platforms. He is a member of the International Hobo game design and narrative consultancy. Adams’ is the author of “Break Into The Game Industry: How to Get A Job Making Video Games”. He also wrote two books with Andrew Rollings. Their 1st was “Andrew Rollings and Ernest Adams on Game Design”. They followed it with “Fundamentals of Game Design”, part of the “Game Design and Development Series” in 2006.

Summarized below are some of the points from his keynote presentation. While I disclaim that this is an effort to capture all his key points, I hope its a useful summary of his speech (His lectures can be found here)

Ernest started with a very simple but important topic: How does a game entertain its players?
He went on to list some of elements that help create that entertainment value. These might not all apply to all games, but its easy to see that most successful games have covered several of these bases.
▪    Game Play remains the most important aspect. Content is king.
▪    Story is equally paramount to get the user to be entrenched in the game
▪    Exploration adds the required challenge and curiosity
▪    Progression: Hardness, new avatars
▪    Risk & Reward: Again fundamental to user experience
▪    Novelty
▪    Learning
▪    Creativity
▪    Role Playing
▪    Socializing: This is becoming a bigger factor in recent years with the growth of social gaming platform whether on social networks or otherwise with increased connectivity.

One of the issues that Ernest reasoned is important in the growth of the gaming industry in India is to be able to start creating long games (those that are beyond 12-15 hours). So it raised the obvious question of how to make games longer?
▪    Themes & Variations
▪    New Challenges & Complexities
▪    Progression: Difficulty should increase steadily, not spikily. Character upgrades – Power Up, New moves
▪    Good Pacing: Periods of high activity, low activity
▪    Change Setting
▪    Player Achievements changes story plot (adaptive games)

One fundamental issue that Ernest highlighted was that the very core DNA of short games is different than long games. You cannot just extend a short game to make it a successful long game. And the rationale is in the purpose with which each of these type of games are made: Short games vs Long Games
▪    Short games are intended to be played repeatedly, but yet should be different at every start (i.e.: shuffle a deck of cards)
▪    Long games are once through and never back. Should be realistic goal – but yet challenging.

So what is so unique about Long Games. What makes them its own special class of games?
▪    Long games are a means of escaping reality – bring a dream to live
▪    Reward the investment of time from the player. Let them live something they cant do in live (e.g.: own a farm, own a team, be a F1 racer)
▪    Take care of your players – User Interface and usability is key
▪    Usual budgets of about 5-10mm (EA, Ubisoft, Namco)

Player-Centric Game Design: Actions and game play arise out of the players choices

Animation is also something that game designers have to be extra cautious, especially in this increasingly competitive environment.
Expect users to try to do weird things. Smooth transitions are your saviour.
e.g.: what happens when a character is jumping, and a user presses Crouch. Be ready for that

In Story Telling, animation is controlled. However in gaming, animation has to be ready to adapt to changing demands of the users.
Animation data is stored on the objects, not on the game. Each object has its own dynamics, behaviour, procedural animations.
This has led to the following features in the development cycle:
▪    Inverse Kinematics – Produces graphics on the go (i.e.: the characters shouldn’t have their feet sink into the floor as they walk up the stairs)
▪    Ragdoll Physics – Falling and Gravity
▪    True Locomotion – Speed of character moving should match the speed at which their legs are moving (i.e.: the Skating effect is unwanted)
(Games now create character animations on the go. However there are often pre-rendered motion graphics).

There are only two film companies that have made it in the game area, Lucas Arts and Disney. And this has been because they understand software engineering and not just creative and animation.

Ernest also talked about major challenge for the Indian Gaming industry is: “How do you go from Outsourcing to IP development?”
▪    Design a brand
▪    Begin with characters – create a character that is a strong symbol of the game (i.e.: Lara Croft)
▪    Requires more dedication as a Game Publisher than a Game Service Provider
▪    Everything matters, anything can make it fail
▪    Skilled game producers – if you don’t have them, get them from somewhere (internationally)
▪    Testing, tuning and polishing – spend 50% of time on this. The difference between a good game and a bad game – is the amount of QA and refinement
▪    If development is N days. Then testing & polishing is 2N day.
▪    Don’t promise what you cant do: Don’t hurt your reputation if you cant do. Honesty wins
▪    Know your audience tastes. Understand local styles of entertainment – what works in India is because India works that way. You cant just bring in western thinking and implement. e.g.: German games don’t have blood. British sense of humour is different than American.
▪    Don’t hire just gamers, hire game developers (its a different thing)
▪    Don’t copy – improve
▪    New features alone are not improvement. Do things better, faster, richly, cleaner. Fix the issues – don’t just add things.
▪    If you cant do a thing well – then don’t do it all. A smaller beautifully built and polished game is better than an average longer game

How do you transition into a Game Publisher in a couple years (i.e.: 5 years rather than 30 years):
▪    Education towards Game Development: Education provides a place where students can make risk free mistakes and grow.
(See Ernest Adams 10 Game Development Commandments)

▪    Professional game development training: There are experts and freelancers to teach large scale asset management, SCRUM management, division of tasks

Ernest concluded that the promise of India is still very much there and infact its threefold:
I.    Talent: This is a country with a lot of very talented people: arts, engineering, design, language and education. And it helps that India is an English speaking country
II.    Markets: Don’t just aim at the US & EU are target markets. There are sufficient pockets in your own country. The top 25% of Indian population is larger than the entire US. The early market movers are ready to take advantage. Make games for your own market.
III.    Culture: Don’t overlook your own culture. India invented Chess, Snakes & Ladders, Pachisi… game is part of the Indian culture.

The core issue right now is that Indian game design industry needs experience – but that will come with training and time. Till then its prudent that they the steps to help foster the culture of game design by looking inwards as well as outwards and attract talent where required.

Game companies are mostly making games based on North American stories (i.e.: Tolkien) and a bit from Japan (medieval & shogun). The rest of the world’s stories never make their way into game. What happened to Mahabharat, Ramayana… the opportunity beckons…

P.S.: Of the all the questions he got at the end of the speech, probably the most interesting one was about some of his all time favourite games. To which he replied: “Tetris. Its absolutely perfect. Its simple. If you make any changes to it – you will make it worse”